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Author uses recipes to propell her murder mysteries

Diane Mott Davidson’s latest whodunit is ”The Main Corpse”

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Laura Esquivel sprinkled them liberally through Like Water for Chocolate. Nora Ephron layered them into 1983’s Heartburn. Even James Carville managed to stir some into his political tract We’re Right, They’re Wrong. It’s obvious recipes aren’t just for cookbooks anymore. But upon my soul, as Miss Marple might say, whatever are they doing in murder mysteries?

Elementary, replies Diane Mott Davidson, today’s foremost practitioner of the culinary whodunit. Her latest, The Main Corpse, is the sixth in a series that has earned Bantam Books the proverbial pile of dough. It’s a simple case of opposites attracting. ”On the one hand,” she explains (over lunch, of course), ”you’re talking about crime: what is dark, chaotic, violent, dealing with death. On the other hand” — stabbing mercilessly at her salad — ”you have what is nurturing, comforting, fun, life affirming….” Got that, Watson?

Or maybe it’s because poison is easier to administer via dessert. At any rate, mysteries and food have had a long and venerable alliance — witness the enduring popularity of Rex Stout’s gourmet detective, Nero Wolfe, and the scent of tea and crumpets that wafts over most Agatha Christies.

Davidson, 47, got the idea from the late Sunset magazine food editor and mystery writer Virginia Rich. But she brings her own set of values to the table. Her sleuth for the ’90s — who has the satisfyingly porridgy name Goldy Bear — is an outspoken survivor of domestic abuse and was a single mother until she got hitched to the town detective. She also runs her own catering business, a plot device that allows instructions for concoctions like Fudge Souffle and Tomato-Brie Pie to crop up as unexpectedly in the narrative as dead bodies.

Not all the recipes are the stuff of decadence. In fact, Davidson’s added one more thoroughly modern twist: Though it would horrify the corpulent Wolfe, a sizable portion of the dishes are virtuously low-fat (partly in deference to a character with a heart problem). But, the author reports, many of her fans are strict sybarites. ”They don’t want to read a low-fat recipe. That’s no fun.” Food for naught…